Q. My wife Marian and I are discussing when one or more of our kids ages 12, 8 and 6 can be left home alone and for what length of time. We also wonder how old a child has to be in order to be left in the car if one of us quickly runs into the store for one or two items. Can our 12-year-old babysit his siblings? We know of people who frequently leave their young children alone at home or in the car. We know this isn’t right. Are there guidelines or laws for us to follow?
A. Only a few states have laws dictating when children can be left alone. In Maryland, it is legal at age 8, and in Illinois, it is at age 14. Texas state laws do not address the age a child can be left alone but hold an adult caregiver accountable for adequate supervision. There are no federal laws governing when to leave a child alone as the government views this issue as a parental right to raise children without interference from the federal level.
There are several things to consider when deciding whether or not to leave a child alone and for what length of time. These things include not only age but also:
- What is the youth’s maturity level?
- Can the child easily and quickly reach you or another designated adult, whether by phone or by walking next door?
- Does the child have good judgment about what to do in an emergency situation?
- Is the youth willing to stay alone and comfortable with the idea?
- Does the child consistently follow family rules and guidelines?
- How safe is the neighborhood and environment where you are leaving your child?
The national Safe Kids campaign supervisor recommends no child under 12 be left alone, while another source suggests that kids ages 9-12 can be left alone for up to two hours if they are mature for that age. In researching this topic, all of the sources I found seemed to agree that kids up to age 5 or 6 should not be left alone. They need to be in a line of sight of a parent or responsible adult. When young children are out of sight, accidents happen.
Regarding when children can be left alone in a car or can babysit, the U.S. Army offers its families these guidelines that may prove helpful. A 10- or 11-year-old can be left in an unattended vehicle for a brief amount of time if the keys are removed and the handbrake is applied. The guidelines state that at age 11, a child can babysit siblings and family friends for up to two hours. At ages 12-14, youth can babysit siblings and family friends up to three hours. It is recommended that children and youth who babysit others take the Red Cross babysitting course.
Thank you for sharing this important question with our readers. Do remember how valuable our children are and err on the side of keeping them safe.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.